In writing circles it is common to refer to an author finding their “voice,” that ineffable something that is less about style or skill than authenticity of expression. With audiobooks, this sense of voice is quite literal, especially for those authors dedicated and talented enough to successfully record their own works.
Most authors are well advised to leave narration to the professionals, seasoned voice actors who bring their specialized skills to bear on the deceptively simple job of bringing the written word to life for the listener. But sometimes the flaws-and-all texture of an author’s own voice can fully communicate their work in ways that no polished performer ever could.
Consider Toni Morrison’s readings of her own novels. In 2017, the author returned to the sound studio to narrate unabridged recordings of her 1977 novel “Song of Solomon“ and her 1997 novel “Paradise.” Then-86-year-old Morrison’s voice quavers, she’s sometimes short of breath and exhibits little of the poise and lush, ravishing vocal embrace that made her earlier reading of “Beloved” arguably the definitive version of that brilliant book in any format. But while something is lost, something else is gained: the unmistakable air of experience, and the weight of wisdom. One can hear in these readings the promises and disappointments of decades. If you’ve never listened to Morrison, treat yourself to her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Paul Auster is another author whose idiosyncratic narrations are perfect vessels for his writing. Auster’s gift has always been to capture the strange and miraculous in the everyday, and his reading voice, a dry inky baritone with a meditative, matter-of-fact quality lends even his most conventional prose a curious luster. His narration of the wry, wistful novel “Sunset Park,” the tale of four 20-somethings squatting in a house in Brooklyn, highlights the subtly strange aura of his work, like Anne Tyler as presented by Rod Serling. Narrating his autobiographical “Winter Journal,” Auster somehow combines the usual memoirist’s intimacy and familiarity with an arm’s-length bemusement, as if to say “This is what happened; this is my life: how odd.” We emerge from his spell with a heightened perspective, slightly estranged from our own experience.
Bruce Springsteen’s rasp is world-famous, and he’s hardly a virtuosic voice actor. Who else could narrate his memoir, “Born to Run”? As he recounts the inside story of his rise from a rough-and-tumble childhood to rock ‘n’ roll superstardom, Springsteen’s soft-spoken, seemingly off-the-cuff reading style perfectly conveys his personal struggles, doubts and flaws with candor and winning humility. The resulting combination of eloquent, lyrical writing and no-frills delivery is pure Springsteen: Passion and confessional poetry in the raw, this audiobook belongs alongside the best of his music.
Kao Kalia Yang’s narration of her book “The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father” ought not to work. As she tells the story of her father, Hmong song-poet Bee Yang, and his life in Laos during the Vietnam War, the oppression and killing fields that followed, his tenuous existence as a refugee in Thailand, and his sacrifices as an immigrant to the United States, Yang breaks all the rules. She narrates in a simple, declarative style, seemingly artless and with a largely unvarying pitch and cadence. There is no acting, no emoting, no verbal pyrotechnics whatsoever; simply line after line of experiences, memories and impressions about her father, Hmong life and culture, and the quiet struggles of immigrants riding on gently swelling tides of restrained emotion. Yet this is easily one of the most moving and eloquent audiobooks you will ever experience, and the perfect illustration of a truth that even veteran narrators struggle to grasp: less is often more, and the listener’s emotional journey must take precedence over the narrator’s.
The Audie Awards are the Oscars of the audiobook world; as any narrator will tell you, it’s an honor just to be nominated. To be nominated multiple times for narrating your own work is rare indeed. Among the handful who’ve done it — Neil Gaiman, Frank McCourt, Al Franken — interest has naturally piqued of late in the expertly narrated audiobooks of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In her 2014 title “A Fighting Chance,” she relays with passion and humility the story of her upbringing and journey to law school, where her focus on bankruptcy brought her face to face with the struggles of everyday Americans, and pointed the way to politics. The story picks up there with her 2017 title “This Fight Is Our Fight,” which offers a revealing glimpse of how the sausage gets made in Washington, D.C., with clear-throated expressions of outrage at the current state of economic affairs and impassioned, articulate suggestions for restoring the public good. Warren is of course a practiced and persuasive speaker, and in these audiobooks she is at the top of her game, alternating anger, humor and folksy storytelling to get her points across.